I struggled a lot this week. I couldn’t think of what to write about and that usually happens when I have too much going on in my mind. I thought of writing about feminism, and then I heard this fantastic TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that can be found here (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_we_should_all_be_feminists). She said all I wanted to say and more! So then I thought I’d write about the brain and why counselors should know and be eager to learn more about it. But then I saw Daniel Amen’s TedTalk available here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esPRsT-lmw8) and he also very succinctly addressed what I would have said and he is a proper doctor and all! And then I thought that these individuals are talking about what they are working on, writing, and researching…so I guess I can write about what I am writing or researching (or should be). So maybe I should bring it down another notch and write about something I have experienced and tried to work on.
I recently co-conducted a workshop on unconscious bias in Salem, VA with a professor from my university. We talked about the different implications of unconscious bias with frontline workers, example, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, nurses, and social workers. We got a mixed response and everyone was not gung-ho about it, but it felt really good to have talked about something that I have at times experienced firsthand and heard about from my colleagues and friends. I can safely say that unconscious bias would be one thing that I would passionately advocate and spread awareness for. I first got interested in unconscious bias when I read Claude Steele’s work in his book named Whistling Vivaldi. This book inspired me to look at my life and wonder how many times I could have been stereotyped and how often the identity contingencies that I was stuck in, resulted in me refusing to even try and do something that I had not done before, because I vehemently believed that I would be bad at it. A common example for this is females and math, which is true for me but I eventually discovered I was good at statistics, which I agree is not math but still. Ha! What luck! Anyway, so I sought to understand my own stereotype threats and then I looked at stereotypes that I may have held in working with my clients over the years.
This was extremely tough, because first, no one wants to agree that they hold a bias or a stereotype even though we all know we do on some level. Second, how does one as a counselor, a profession that stands on the foundations of non-judgment and unconditional regard accept that we also have our own biases that may be unknown to us. Do you know yours? Known though, is a completely different story. When we know, and are aware that there are certain things that influence our attitude and behavior towards others, then we can actually do something about it. The key is to make the unconscious conscious and start working on it. One of the struggles that I’ve had is that people are unable to pronounce my name correctly. That is a problem with people everywhere. Knowing that I get ticked off by people saying my name incorrectly, I have to make sure that I say others’ names correctly. In my own small way, I don’t want anyone to feel they should have to deal with me not saying their name correctly on a regular basis. Plus, it shows fellow human beings that you care enough, especially clients.
The key is to start small – checking our behaviors and attitudes on a daily basis, examining why we are so irritated after a certain client leaves are some examples of these small things. Once we can say that we have consistently maintained self-checks, then we can move on to other issues. We can also help our clients recognize both their biases or stereotypes as well as identity contingencies that they may be stuck it. Bringing attention to and examining these details could have an effect on not only how a client perceives their reality but also how much they have the power to control that reality by slightly shifting the way that they think. Let’s try and see what kind of ripple effect we can initiate...after all, someone creative and wise, namely Vincent Van Gough said - “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”.
Jyotsana Sharma is a Doctoral Candidate, Counselor, Educator, and human being in the making. Visit her website at: www.jyots21.wordpress.com or find her on twitter @jyots21s.